On the Road to EU

The Tourkokratia -
Was it Really That Bad?-Part 3A

Athens News

Was the four-century-long Ottoman rule of Greece a burdensome legacy for the nation's overall development? In the final instalment, historian David Brewer revisits the Ottoman influence on Greece in the leadup to Greek independence. He offers his final conclusions on the good versus the bad of the Tourkokratia

Fifteen years after the fall of Crete, Venice's attempt to recover her position in the eastern Mediterranean brought war to the mainland of Greece for the first time since the original Ottoman conquests.

Venice joined the alliance of powers, another so-called Holy League, that had driven the Ottoman army back from their last siege of Vienna in 1683, and now aimed
to push them out of Europe altogether. In 1684, Venetian troops, once again under Francesco Morosini, landed in western Greece aiming to annex Greece.

The Venetians, with intermittent help from the Greeks of the Mani, had immediate and dramatic successes. By summer 1687 they controlled the whole Peloponnese. In the autumn the Venetians besieged Athens, where on September 26 a mortar shot from the besiegers detonated the Ottoman powder magazine in the Parthenon, beginning the Parthenon Marbles saga that arouses passionate controversy to this day. Ironically, the capture of Athens and the unfortunate mortar shot served no purpose; within a few months the Venetians had abandoned Athens as strategically worthless.

The Ottomans, as so often in their history, were now fighting on two fronts, both this time in the west. As well as the Venetian attack on the Peloponnese, the Ottoman forces faced the rapid advance of the Austrian troops of the Holy League, who got as far south as Skopje. At all costs the Ottomans had to prevent the joining of the two arms of the offensive, and in fact they halted the Venetian advance some 30 miles north of Athens. If the two armies had succeeded in meeting, Greece and the rest of the Balkans could have been released en bloc from Ottoman rule by the end of the 17th century, instead of piecemeal in the 19th.

Sultan's soldiers and Turkish mob capture Orthodox
Patriarch Constantinople Grigorios V to hang him
outside the patriarchate in Istanbul on 10 April 1821,
Orthodox Easter Day, in revenge for the Greeks'
independence revolt

But the Austrian offensive rapidly petered out, and by the end of 1690 Belgrade and all the territory south of it were once again in Ottoman hands. The expulsion of the Venetians from Greece came later. In 1715 a massive Ottoman army of 100,000 drove the 8,000 Venetian defenders from the Peloponnese. In the treaty that followed, Venice retained only the Ionian islands and four towns on the opposite mainland. Venice's days as a major player in Greece were over.

The prelude to independence

The next major event of the Tourkokratia was the Orlov revolt of 1770. It was inspired by Russia and began in one of the most lawless areas of Greece, the southern Peloponnese. Under Catherine the Great, Russia was expansionist and wanted access to the Mediterranean. This was blocked by Turkey's control of the Bosphorus, the only outlet from the Black Sea. Russia saw Turkey as vulnerable, though it was another century before a Russian tsar called Turkey the Sick Man of Europe. In 1768, Russia and Turkey declared war.

Possession of Greece would, of course, give Russia its coveted access to the Mediterranean. Russian agents in Greece reported, with unfounded optimism, that 100,000 armed Greeks, klephts and others, would support a Russian invasion. At the end of February 1770, Count Theodore Orlov, one of Catherine the Great's many lovers, landed at the little harbour of Hilo in the Mani, with five ships and only 500 men. The Greeks were unimpressed, and nothing like the promised 100,000 Greek supporters materialised.

Nevertheless, the revolt had some significant early successes, taking Navarino, Mistra and Kalamata, and further north even briefly holding Mesolonghi. The Turks quickly struck back. In early April, only six weeks after the Russian landing, the Turks and their Albanian mercenaries crushingly defeated the Russians and Greeks at Tripolis in the central Peloponnese.

From then on the Russians retreated. The Albanian mercenaries of the Turks were totally ruthless in suppressing the revolt, plundering and killing. On 6 June 1770, the Russians sailed away ftom their last outpost at Navarino. The revolt had lasted less than a hundred days, and had left the Greeks in a worse condition than before.

Though Russia had failed in Greece she had been overwhelmingly successful in the war elsewhere. In the 1774 Treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji, which ended the war, she was able to dictate her own terms. Russia got her access through the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean. She also acquired the right to protect the Greek and other Christian subjects of Turkey. Even more important for the Greeks was an extension of the treaty five years later, giving Greek ships the right to fly the Russian flag and therefore access to the Black Sea. The door was opened for a huge expansion of Greek maritime trade.

The Orlov revolt, though shortlived and fruitless in itself, was a sign that the world was changing, both in Greece and beyond. The decline of the Ottoman empire was becoming obvious to the powers of Europe, especially to neighbouring Russia. The vultures were eyeing their moribund prey. Also the Greeks themselves were beginning to reach out to the wider world. The treaty of Kutchuk-Kainardji and its successor agreements had opened the Black Sea to them, so the Greeks began to build the larger ships needed for long voyages, especially in the naval Aegean islands of Hydra, Spetses and Psara. The agreements had also given Greeks the right to trade in all Habsburg dominions, which included Austria, Hungary and most of Germany and Italy. Greek merchants therefore became established in cities throughout Europe, and this stimulated the flow of European ideas into Greece.

The so-called Greek Enlightenment, it has to be said, did not amount to much as an intellectual movement. Unlike the Scottish Enlightenment, which contributed new ideas to the debate, it was purely and haphazardly derivative.

Greek thinkers were too wedded to the ancient masters Plato and Aristotle and to conservative church doctrine to be truly innovative.

There was, however, one important message of the Enlightenment which did reach Greece. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 had proclaimed as self-evident that if any form of government, becomes destructive of the rights of man, "it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it." In Greece, Kolokotronis, former klepht and then military leader in the war of independence, saw the same principle in the French Revolution and expressed the idea more pithily. "The nations," he said, "knew nothing before the French Revolution. The people thought that kings were gods upon earth, and that the people were bound to say that whatever the kings did was well done." The scene was set for the Greek rising of 1821.

So how bad was the Tourkokratia?

Let's look at the charges against Turkish rule:

1. That the Greeks were enslaved. No. Some Greeks were taken as slaves by Turks and others. But the Greeks as a whole were not slaves; they were not the property of an owner who could buy and sell them.

2. That Greek boys were fordbly conscripted. Yes, even though some benefited from this system, and it was abandoned around 1700.

3. That Greeks were under pressure to convert to Islam. No. The relatively few conversions were for personal advantage. There was no pressure to convert.

4. That Greek education had to be in secret. No, not true at all.

5. That Greek revolts were ruthlessly suppressed. Yes, but that was true for most of

6. That Turkish taxation was unbearably oppressive. Yes and no. Probably not true of the earlier period, but increasingly true later, as the Ottoman economy declined.

7. That the Turks cut Greece off from Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment. No. The main barrier to Greek artistic and intellectual development Was the conservatism of the Greek Church, and of the education for which it was responsible.

8. That theTurks failed to develop the country and left nothing of value behind them. Yes, broadly true. They could have done much more to stimulate productive agriculture, drain swamps, prevent soil erosion and build roads and ports to encourage trade.

Next, what can one say on the plus side?

There was no official interference with Greek religion. In many cases the Greeks preferred the tolerance of Turkish rule to the proselytising Catholicism of the Venetians. Greece was, spared the religious conflicts that, racked much of Europe: the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of Huguenots in france, the Inquisition in Spain.

2. There was no interference with education, and there was no threat to the Greek language or to Greek culture in general.

3. Greek territory, once acquired by the Turks, was not fought over. The one exception was the Venetian attempt on the Peloponnese in the 1680s. The Turkish conquests of 1453 had saved Greec from the battles of Crusader barons and Turkish occupation spared Greece the horrors of later European conflicts. Greece had no Thirty Years' War.

Ottoman troops slaughter civilians on the Aegean
island of Chios in the spring of 1822. European nations protested at the brutal destruction of Chios and the Philhellenic movement across the continent was renewed

On balance, therefore, the Tourkokratia was not that bad, and brought benefits as well as disadvantages. But this is to treat a people's history as a matter of accountancy. It would be a better conclusion to recall two things said about the Greeks by Yorgos Seferis, diplomat, poet and the first Greek to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On the Greeks' own responsibility for their misfortunes, he quoted approvingly an old Cretan saying: "The fate every people makes for itself, and the things its own madness does to it, are not things done by its enemies."

And on reconciliation, Seferis wrote of the destruction by fire of his beloved birthplace Smyrna in 1922, at the end of the Asia Minor catastrophe. Greeks and Turks, he said, blame each other for the fire, but he concluded: "Who will discover the truth? The wrong has been committed. The important thing is, who will redeem it?"

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